Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Incarcertion Rates Worth Examining

The Durango Herald

Nearly $700 million of Colorado's budget will be spent this year on prisons in the state - accounting for 8.8 percent of the general fund. That is a significant line item for a service that is both essential and deserving of a closer look, particularly given the budgetary challenges facing the state. A proposal to reduce sentences for certain convictions is at least worth considering.

Senate Bill 286 would lessen jail time for a range of crimes by reclassifying them as lower offenses. It would not change how sex crimes, many violent offenses and capital convictions are handled, but would reduce sentences for many drug, nonviolent and property crimes. The net result of the changes, lawmakers anticipate, could save the state $14 million a year. As such, examining the sentencing structure is an exercise that should be undertaken - if not in the form of SB 286 then in some capacity.

There is a non-economic reason to reconsider Colorado's sentencing structure as well. According to the Pew Center on the States, one in 97 Coloradans is in prison and far more - one in 29 - is either in prison, on parole or on probation. By those figures, most outings to the grocery store, coffee shop, or health club are shared with at least one person involved in the criminal justice system. That suggests the fervor with which we, as a state, incarcerate people may be elevated beyond what is healthy.

It is difficult to conceive that nearly one-third of all Coloradans are hardened criminals in need of incarceration, supervision or some other separation from the general population. Instead, the numbers suggest that the state could benefit from an examination of sentencing practices - something Gov. Bill Ritter advocated in 2007 when he formed the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to consider such reforms. While that committee has been criticized for its slow pace, it is perhaps a more prudent approach to carefully study a range of options among experts in the field.

A legislative solution without such a study may not be the most desirable way to thin the populations of the state's prisons. With public safety as one of the paramount functions of government at any level, any changes to the laws that affect that safety need to be made most carefully. Accordingly, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers is expressing appropriate caution in his opposition to Senate Bill 286. The concepts therein, however, do not deserve wholesale dismissal.

By the same token, some of the measure's advocates' arguments are not sufficient to justify the bill on its face. The Independence Institute - an unlikely ally of the Democrats proposing Senate Bill 286 - supports the measure on the basis that government spending is out-of-control and that as a cost-savings measure, the bill is a good one. That may be, but the argument is too simplistic given the potential ramifications of reducing jail time for convicted criminals.

The answer, as with many things, likely lies somewhere in the middle. Adjusting sentences to make them more reasonable makes sense. Reallocating efforts on rehabilitation is far more cost-effective than a straight punitive approach to crime. Those who have gotten on the wrong path benefit from such opportunities, as does the state budget. For many reasons - human and economic - prison sentences in Colorado deserve review. 


Anonymous said...

You cant get reform from the so called experts in the field because they all derive there income from those incarcerated and are not going to give up there incomes from the state or federal treasury's.
The real issue is the state and fed guilty of involuntary servitude of many who are incarcerated for being sick or for so called money crimes?? djw

Anonymous said...

It certainly didn't take 2 years back in the 90's to create our terrible mandatory parole system and INCREASE sentences! The Commission is moving too slow. Of course Ritter wants to get re-elected for another term, so he won't want to appear soft on crime. But now he's in between a rock and a hard place...he's got to do something.

Anonymous said...